Pine Leaf Boys – Cajun cool
The stage is covered in people: It’s the end of a set and the band has hurriedly pulled folks out of the front rows. You can’t see the drummer, girls have surrounded the guitar player, and one guy is shouting in the singer’s mike.
Which could describe any number of rock ‘n’ roll shows on Friday night in America — but this is Cajun band the Pine Leaf Boys, playing at Grant Street Dance Hall in Lafayette, Louisiana. They’re not encoring with “Louie, Louie” or some similar free-for-all; they’re playing BeauSoleil’s “Zydeco Gris Gris”. Fiddler Cedric Watson spits out the tongue-twisting lyrics en Francais until the end of the chorus, when the largely under-30 crowd shouts, “ZYDECO!”
In New Orleans, the audience at Cajun shows is largely older, often comprised of people who treat dancing as an aerobic exercise and dress accordingly, with sweat bands, gym shorts and hankies to mop their sweaty brows. At Grant Street, the largely college-age girls are dressed to meet boys, one wearing a black bustier top and black-and-white striped knee-length skirt. And the guys — well, they’re trying, wearing shirts with collars, clean jeans and their good baseball caps.
Everything about the Pine Leaf Boys on its surface goes against the traditional notions of Cajun music, which on record and in performance often sounds like the forlorn music of days gone by. On their new disc Blues De Musicien (Arhoolie), the Boys play with atypical muscle and drive — they have bass and drums, which truly traditional Cajun doesn’t — but it all comes from an exploration of the roots of their music. “We’re trying to go back as far as we can for inspiration,” Watson says.
The Grant Street show is a mock battle-of-the-bands with the Red Stick Ramblers, and the referee for the night has just tossed a yellow flag on the Pine Leaf Boys for bringing up a rubboard player mid-song. The penalty is to perform a jure, a largely a cappella song accompanied only by footstomps and syncopated handclaps.
This song form is rarely used, but guitarist Jon Bertrand wrote one for Blues De Musicien. “Quand Rita Est Arrive” is about his experiences after Hurricane Rita, a tragedy in Southwest Louisiana that has been overshadowed by Hurricane Katrina’s destruction. There is nothing mournful or bookish about the song’s performance, though, particularly when the audience joins in. The form might be as old as Cajun music itself, but it sounds contemporary on this night.
That’s because, in a sense, it is. Despite having renowned musicians Marc and Ann Savoy as parents, Pine Leaf accordionist Wilson Savoy didn’t come to Cajun music until he was in college at LSU in Baton Rouge. Many of the greats of Cajun music had passed through his family’s house — Dewey Balfa, Dennis McGee — but as a child, they meant little to him. “Dennis McGee was kind of a scary fellow for a 5-year-old,” he says.
Savoy’s high school years were spent immersed in 1950s rock ‘n’ roll. Meanwhile, in Texas, Watson was working to connect to his Creole roots. When he’d visit an uncle in Kinder, Louisiana, he’d hear French music on the radio, and he started taping those shows.
Savoy finally became popular when his classmates discovered he could play “Great Balls Of Fire” on the piano, but Watson’s classmates were less accepting. “I played [a] zydeco [tape] in the class and one guy said, ‘Get that country shit out of there,'” he recalls. “People called me Frenchie.”
Attending Wednesday night jam sessions in Lafayette, Savoy became interested in Cajun music. “I was, like, wow, young guys my age who were cool were playing Cajun music,” he says. He soon found Watson, Bertrand, bassist Blake Miller, and drummer Drew Simon, as well as a community of young musicians who were also in the process of exploring their Cajun roots. In Feufollet, the Red Stick Ramblers, the Lost Bayou Ramblers and the Racines, the Pine Leaf Boys found a community that Savoy realizes his father never had. “My dad’s friends were in their 60s and 70s when he was in his 20s,” he says.
The album that best illustrates the nature of the young Cajun community is Allons Boire Un Coup, released in February on Valcour Records (run by Savoy’s brother Joel). The collection of Cajun drinking songs features members of all those bands either as units or with each other. “La Valse De Bambocheur” is credited to Courtney Granger & Friends — “friends” in that case meaning anyone sober enough after a Red Stick Ramblers show to still play. Despite the irreverence of the album’s origins, it features deeply traditional tracks such as Watson’s a cappella version of Canray Fontenot’s “Table Ronde”.
The Pine Leaf Boys are aware there’s much about them that isn’t traditional. Still, Watson points out that everybody in the band speaks French to each other, and when I pronounce Bertrand’s name “Jon” as “John,” he corrects me, “Jean.” Their sense of purpose and identity come from the Cajun and Creole roots.
“We all know how people couldn’t speak French in school and Cajuns were looked at as low-class or trash,” Savoy says. “I’m growing up in a time period when it’s cool, which makes it much easier to do.”